Olives, Cod, Perfection Salad and Something From the Oven were not on my Super Bowl dinner menu; they are four of my favorite non-cookbook food books. Books from that broad genre can give us a look at history or society or even science through a usefully idiosyncratic lens. Of course, some lenses focus too narrowly; I might enjoy a book called Fennel, but I doubt that topic's ability to shed the wider light that those four, and many others, do.
Sarah Murray's book, Moveable Feasts, doesn't take food as its organizing topic, but the transport of food. The 12 chapters take up olive oil, salmon, tomatoes, chewing gum, curry, bananas, yogurt, wine, tea, strawberries, wheat and corn.
But that's a very misleading description, since those foods are mere excuses, often with a vanishingly small role in the chapter, for discussing some aspect of transport technology. So, those chapters are, in the same order, really about amphoras, shipping containers, military rations, the Berlin Airlift, Mumbai's elaborate lunch delivery system, refrigerated steamships, carbon emissions, oak barrels, clipper ships, air shipping, grain elevators and emergency relief operations.
Unfortunately, these individual chapters are superficial and offer little insight into or analysis of their subjects. They rely too much on cute juxtapositions and a mostly uncritical, gee-whiz approach to food and transport technology. The superficiality is particularly annoying; just as the detailed workings become relevant and interesting, the writing gets vague and then hares off onto another track. Most of the time, in the absence of independently compelling events, there's no narrative pull. To use a cooking term, it's a hodgepodge.
The 12 chapters typically share this structure: Present some historical or exotic case of food transport, move to its modern analog (moral: It was ever thus) and then make much of clever modern technology (moral: It's all good). It's mostly upbeat and, with a few exceptions in some of the later chapters, questions of value arise only to be dismissed.
For instance, consider the salmon chapter. It opens with an account of the salmon's life-cycle, including its astounding ability, after years at sea, to find its way back to the stream of its childhood. Murray alludes to speculation that the earth's magnetic field guides the fish—but her explanation of such theories is contentless. Her account of huge distances salmon cover then segues to the huge post-mortem mileage that they rack up. The point is that millions of tons of fish, including salmon, are shipped, frozen, to China where they are boned, sliced, refrozen and shipped to a market near you. A brief mention of the young women employed at this labor and we segue to the central story of the shipping container: its invention, history, dooming of dock workers and domination of the shipping world. We learn that a "single twenty-foot container could hold about forty-eight thousand bananas. ... [T]oday's ships can each carry about eight thousand containers, which if placed end to end on top of each other would reach higher than 160 Eiffel Towers." (Murray uses this trope many times in the book: "Every week pizza drivers travel nine million miles (more than thirty-seven trips to the moon and back)," as well as, "almost 70 million tons of food ... the same weight as almost 192 Empire State Buildings." She does seem, if not a size queen, certainly a meaningless number queen.)
Murray gets around to On the Waterfront, misattributing to the Marlon Brando character the pugnacious catchphrase "A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do," and she takes that to mean "shifting boxes, crates and sacks with ... primitive equipment ... and brute force." This unsavory world contrasts with the wondrous "port of Hamburg today ... empty of dockworkers." It's all gleaming giant machines and remote control. "In this world, size matters, too. The biggest gantry cranes are almost four hundred feet tall, weight up to fifteen hundred tons, and could lift weight equivalent to thirty elephants." We don't find out if she means African or Indian elephants, which is approximately 60 tons worth of imprecision.
What container shipping has done is lowered costs so drastically that it pays to disperse goods all over the world for processing, manufacture and assembly. Cheap shipping has made cheap labor cheaply available. To bring salmon back into it, we also get the story of refrigerated containers. The chapter then shifts briefly to anti-globalization protests at WTO meetings. That, without the excited prose that decorates the technology sections, quickly moves to this: "global brands [e.g. Nike] are actually emerging as a positive force for workers," etc.
Indeed, even when she mentions the "side effects" (as she calls them) of globalization, Murray almost immediately moves on to one variant or another of the standard apologist argument, that absent the opportunity to grow export crops for the West, Third World farmers and workers would be even worse off. This arbitrary restriction to two unpalatable alternatives is what I call the "Your money or your life" argument.
With some exceptions, this chapter is typical. Anything corporate, global and technological is glowingly described ("The corporate branding of all these vehicles is impressive ... decked out in the famous orange and purple. ... All sorts of machines are at the ready. ... The smell of cardboard mixes with the potent aroma of jet fuel."), but no such orange and purple prose is lavished on the details of farming or the removal of pin bones from salmon.
But even with stuff she cares about, large machines and industrial cleverness, Murray stays resolutely superficial. When she offers details, they are sometimes inconsistent—what was plastic in one paragraph turns to nylon in the next.
It isn't all bad. The chapter on yogurt, with its long account of Mogul nomadism, is her best because it doesn't rehash the familiar and doesn't, until the end, serve as a sly brief for globalization.
Murray does think that there are problems with the globalization of our food. But she doesn't like solutions that would cut back on the transport of food, take away our January tomatoes and not give Kenyan farmers the opportunity to raise those tomatoes for export. She does think there are are solutions that will result in less damage to the planet, and she knows where they'll come from. From "engineers, business chiefs and politicians."
NGOs, farmers, environmentalists, consumers, you and me? Murray's decision-making food chain doesn't include us.
Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m., Sarah Murray will appear at Regulator Bookshop. She will also speak to classes at UNC's Kenan Flagler School of Business. For more info, visit www.regbook.com.